Top Congressional Black Caucus members are rejecting suggestions that an unprecedented number of public embarrassments in recent months have diminished the group’s clout.
CBC veterans have dominated the news lately, but not for their successes. Monday was supposed to mark the start of the ethics trial of Rep. Maxine Waters, but the House ethics committee opted 10 days ago to return the case to investigators, citing “materials discovered that may have had an effect” on the case, according to a statement.
The California Democrat is alleged to have allowed her staff to help direct federal bailout money to a bank in which her husband had a financial stake.
Meanwhile, Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) is awaiting a House vote on whether he will be censured. In addition to Waters’ and Rangel’s ethics charges, five other CBC members were found this year to have improperly — but inadvertently — accepted corporate-funded travel to the Caribbean. The ethics committee has also interviewed staff for Rep. Laura Richardson, apparently in response to allegations that the California Democrat forced her staff to volunteer for her campaign.
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, incoming chairman of the CBC, said the ethics cases have no bearing on the group’s influence.
“I think it would be a mistake to assume that an investigation of two members of a specific caucus demeans the entire caucus,” the Missouri Democrat said. “I mean, anybody here in Congress who has gotten into trouble we could probably trace to their Congressional caucus, whether it’s Duke Cunningham or Charlie Rangel or the guy tickling his staff members. ... So I don’t think that’s accurate at all.”
Cleaver said the cases are getting more attention because the members are black.
“I understand this is a statement of condemnation and that because they are African-American, it generates a bit more attention simply because it is a large minority in the nation and Congress,” he said.
Outgoing CBC Chairwoman Barbara Lee said, “I think the CBC is well- positioned to play a leadership role in the next Congress.”
The California Democrat defended Rangel and Waters. In Waters’ case, the committee “still, for whatever reasons, has postponed her hearing. I think that says a lot about [her] case,” Lee said.
Lee pointed out that Rangel hired a forensic accountant and the committee concluded he was not trying to enrich himself.
“Members of Congress are human beings and make mistakes,” she said.
Still, several K Streeters and Democratic aides said the CBC’s credibility has taken a hit as the group stands behind Members who are facing ethics probes.
“I think the last two years have been really problematic for them because they’ve had to be so reactionary,” one Democratic aide said. “They’ve done very little ... in terms of putting out a proactive plan and strategy. They had a real opportunity to be a strong echo for a lot of the initiatives that the Democratic Caucus was working on passing.”
Instead, CBC members were “jammed up” defending their members in high profile investigations, the aide said.
“I think that they have to take a very close look at whether or not it’s worth it to spend capital and prestige by continuing to defend some of their members who are under investigation,” the aide said. “It ends up being a pox on the entire caucus.”
Other CBC members have had to fight for their positions in leadership. Majority Whip James Clyburn nearly lost his spot in leadership when Democrats lost the House. The South Carolina Democrat challenged Majority Leader Steny Hoyer for the Whip position in the minority before cutting a deal with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) after he realized that he likely could not beat the Maryland Democrat for the post. While Clyburn remains in leadership at the No. 3 post, a detailed portfolio of his responsibilities has not been released.
Rep. Edolphus Towns is also facing a challenge from Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) to be ranking member on Oversight and Government Reform. Towns, who has been making calls for support, said he’s confident he will win.
“We feel really good about it,” the New York Democrat said. “The committee folks have indicated their support. I think that’s crucial because these are people that you’ve worked with over the last two years.”
A Democratic aide with ties to the group disputed the notion that the group’s clout had taken a hit, noting that the CBC — unlike other Democratic splinter groups — actually increased its membership in the midterms. The CBC will be the largest caucus in the House in the 112th Congress.
“In a time when Democrats are reviewing the most recent elections and regrouping, planning for the future, I think CBC members are recognizing the role they’ve historically played and the important role they can play in the future of the party,” the aide said.
For example, Rep. Keith Ellison (Minn.) or Rep. Donna Edwards (Md.) could lead the Congressional Progressive Caucus next Congress.
The aide accused outside groups of taking aim at the group and its members, in part through frivolous claims of ethical impropriety.
“They are the heart of the Democratic party, and I think that outside opponents recognize that and have been targeting them for that reason,” the aide said.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.